An exciting evening in Covent Garden.
A stranger arrives out of nowhere, offering hope to an embattled and embittered community. But who is he, and what’s his mission? These are questions the inhabitants of Brabant should ask, but don’t. If this scenario sounds all too familiar, current world events couldn’t help but shape a different perspective on David Alden’s exemplary 2018 staging of Wagner’s mythical and enigmatic opera, revived here by The Royal Opera for the first time. Set in a timeless dystopian world, we see a community at odds with itself, riven with mistrust and only too happy to point the finger of blame and find a scapegoat – in this case the innocent Elsa, wrongly accused of abducting and murdering her brother Gottfried.
Within Paul Steinberg’s slanting sets, the world Alden presents is quite literally off kilter, and is an apt visual metaphor for a society in flux. While there are some Alden tics that we’ve seen countless times before – chain-smoking baddies, grey overcoats, chair throwing – they’re less obtrusive than in his previous stagings. This is no doubt due to the superb way he marshals his forces on stage, his razor-sharp personenregie and clear story telling.
Adam Silverman’s evocative lighting plot enhances the otherworldliness of Alden’s approach, giving the whole evening the feel of film noir – it’s as if Fritz Lang had had a hand in the staging. Whether or not the fascistic overtones of the third act sit well with Lohengrin’s character or his big reveal is debatable, but Alden’s vision of the piece certainly hit home, and with visceral force.
The vast majority of the cast was new – the only returnee Irish soprano Jennifer Davis as an uncommonly touching Elsa. Jumping in at relatively short notice when the production was new four years ago, she won all hearts then, but in the intervening years her voice has blossomed, and she’s grown in confidence, resulting in as gloriously sung account of the role as you’re likely to hear today. Strong and determined in her confrontation with Ortrud, yet able to float a string of pianissimos when needed, she reminded us of Anne Evans in this role – high praise indeed.
“Set in a timeless dystopian world, we see a community at odds with itself…”
As the scheming, malevolent Ortrud Russian mezzo Anna Smirnova possessed the required vocal guns Wagner asked of her. A still, baleful presence in the first act, she literally let her hair down in the second as she cajoled Telramund to join her in destroying Elsa, and the mysterious knight. This was Wagner singing of immense power, and she rightly brought the house down at her curtain call.
As her partner in crime Craig Colclough couldn’t match her decibels, but his slightly granular voice was a perfect fit for Telramund. Gábor Bretz was a dignified King, even though his well-schooled bass was a shade light for Covent Garden. Australian bass-baritone Derek Welton made an auspicious house debut as the Herald – a Wotan and Klingsor in Berlin, he used his rich, expressive voice to telling effect, turning this relatively small role into a major one, commanding attention whenever he appeared on stage. On the basis on this showing, he’s richly deserved an invitation to return – hopefully in a bigger role, so his prodigious vocal talents can be properly appreciated. He’d make a marvellous Telramund.
Brandon Jovanovich’s full-throated, muscular tenor was a perfect fit for the swan knight – far better suited to the title role than his predecessor – and he sang with a combination of ardour and tenderness throughout. It’s cruel of Wagner to expect his heroic lead to rise to the challenge of ‘In fernem Land’ so late in the evening, and there were signs Jovanovich was tiring, but nevertheless this was a thrilling take on the role.
Under chorus director William Spaulding, the augmented chorus covered themselves in glory, and sang superbly throughout. In the pit Jakub Hruša led a loving, beautifully detailed account of the work – never rushed, never ponderous – just perfectly judged, and he elicited superb playing from the orchestra. It’s long time since we’ve heard Wagner conducting of this stature at this particular address – you’d have to go as far back to Haitink’s Meistersinger performances to recall Wagner conducting this good. And let’s face it – Wagner conductors don’t grow on trees, so it’s to be hoped Hruša is invited back for more.
• Further performance details can be found here.